For the past 31 years, the congregants at Beth Shalom synagogue celebrated the High Holy Days in Christian churches.
Now, instead of crosses and statues of saints, worshippers will view the eternal light, a symbolic lamp that never goes out, in their own sanctuary, watching over an elaborate ark containing the Torah, with the Star of David crafted into the ceiling overhead.
More than 400 people will flood into Beth Shalom’s new sanctuary on Wednesday to celebrate the start of a New Year. It will be the beginning of a more than a week of holy days, starting tonight with Rosh Hashana and ending next weekend with Yom Kippur.
“On Jewish holidays, we feel so much better when we have our own home than going to some other place with their symbolism,” said Rabbi Ariel Edery. “This is going to be very significant because of that this year.”
Beth Shalom built its original synagogue 14 years ago, but it was never large enough to hold holiday services. The congregation recently expanded the facility by 6,000 square feet to provide space for the new sanctuary and a religious school.
Even with the extra space, Edery and organizers are concerned about capacity for High Holy Days, when most members and many guests attend.
“Of course, it’s a great concern,” Edery said. “We are happy that a lot of people will come.”
Rosh Hashana is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the New Year and begins 10 days of examining the past year and preparing for the next year’s day of judgment on Oct. 4. At the end of 10 days, observers will fast for 24 hours into Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Next Saturday, Beth Shalom will hold its Yom Kippur service, and the congregation will break their fast together.
Tiffiny Wolf, a member of the choir and head of fundraising, said she loves the new space. For previous Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, she said, organizers would have to bring a traveling ark, a decorated closet for the synagogue’s Torah scrolls.
“You have to think of all the stuff to bring along. It’s hard when you’re expecting so many people,” said Arlene Zeiler, a member of the synagogue who sits on the membership committee.
“And there’s the traveling cup of yarmulkes,” Wolf said, referring to the skullcaps worn by Jewish men.
Normally, about 235 member families attend Beth Shalom, and organizers say that they are expecting up to 450 people to attend this week’s services, in addition to up to 100 children in the kids’ program.
Although the sanctuary normally holds about 250, the sanctuary can open up into the fellowship room, allowing for several hundred more.
The project took eight years and $2.1 million. The money came from fundraising efforts and from the congregation, since each synagogue is independent.
“There is no ‘else’; it all comes from here,” Edery said.
So with no larger associations to depend on for financial support, Beth Shalom is slowly updating its space. It still needs to landscape and repave the parking lot, but money has run dry.
Edery, who has been Beth Shalom’s rabbi for 10 years, says that his congregation is unique by its intimate size, volunteer spirit and diversity.
“Most people here are from somewhere else,” he said, pointing to different members setting up for the service. “She’s from Texas. She’s from New York. I am from Argentina.”
Sally Zenick, president of Beth Shalom, said that more than half of the members come from families where only one parent is Jewish. The whole family is included so that the non-Jewish parent is a member and can fully participate.
“I think that is a testament to our congregation, that inter-faith families feel comfortable here,” Arlene Zeiler said.
The members helping to set up for the service were full of smiles and humor. Edery estimated maybe 100 people contributed to the logistics of the services. Maybe it was the holidays, or the excitement of hosting their first services, but three days before Rosh Hashana, volunteers had eagerly set everything in place.
“We all know and care for each other. In many ways, this community is an extended family,” Edery said.
“During the holidays, many people get together with their families. But if your family is in New York and you are here, that’s not happening. This is the family you get together with.”